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The Good, the Bad and the Innovative: Understanding the Darker Side of Innovation for Development

2 Mar 2017

The Good, the Bad and the Innovative: Understanding the Darker Side of Innovation for Development
New ideas and policies are needed to tackle global challenges, and innovation will be key to implementing the 2030 Agenda. But innovation implies disruption -- and actual or even potential upheaval in the status quo can generate resistance. Innovators need to understand the potential and perceived negative impacts of innovation, and work to overcome the sources of resistance to change.

Roman Twerenbold obtained his Master's in Development and International Relations from Aalborg University in June 2016. His Master’s research looked at questions of participation and sustainability in community-driven infrastructure projects in the Mekong Delta. At the time of writing he was an intern with UNRISD's social policy programme.

The UN SDG Action Campaign’s Global Festival of Ideas for Sustainable Development is taking place from 1-3 March 2017, bringing together policy makers, the private sector, investors and civil society to chart new thinking on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. New ideas, or more precisely, innovation, has become a buzzword in current conversations about realizing the SDGs and can refer to everything from the development of new technologies to a restructuring of the global financial system. In many of these contexts, innovation is seen as not only necessary but also intrinsically positive. The very name of this week’s event makes this clear: it is not a conference or a forum, but a “festival” of ideas. Indeed, the literature on innovation has identified a “pro-innovation bias” in research and policy, a form of optimism that holds that change is always good and will do good. But is innovation always positive?

Innovation has the potential to contribute to positive social change

Without a doubt, innovation has a large role to play in addressing global development challenges. The 2016 UNRISD Flagship Report makes this clear, highlighting various innovations that contribute to the realization of the SDGs and promote objectives of social and environmental justice. For example, India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act offers 100 days of paid employment to rural households while focusing on environmental conservation, natural resource management and higher land productivity, thus providing an innovative approach to combating rural poverty that addresses environmental objectives alongside social and economic ones. In Bolivia, the government has designed an innovative universal social pension for citizens financed by taxes on oil and gas production together with profits of state-owned companies, leading to improved results on several social indicators. This new social contract was the outcome of citizen mobilization and fierce contestation around the distribution of hydrocarbon rents in the early 2000s.

But there is also a darker side to innovation

Innovation means disrupting or replacing existing processes, roles, institutions, technologies or business models, and this generates winners and losers. Technological innovations, for example, have enhanced productivity and contributed to economic growth while automating and digitizing jobs previously held by a human workforce. This has a direct impact on employment and income security, especially when social protection is weak or absent. This darker side of innovation is now starting to be discussed in the literature, which has identified disruptive objectives, operational failures and unintended consequences as components of “bad innovations”.

Outright resistance can be another effect of the disruption engendered by innovation. During my time working in rural Cambodia, I encountered teachers who resisted the introduction of new student-centred teaching methods and continued to teach using “traditional” methods. While resistance to change is not uncommon and has multiple sources, in this case part of the explanation can be found in Cambodia’s troubled history in which many policy changes went from bad to worse. Over time, people integrated the idea that moving away from the status quo was risky and might lead to disaster. To point to one example, a particularly disruptive “innovation” introduced under the Khmer Rouge regime attempted to build an agrarian society around the notion of absolute self-sufficiency, with disastrous social consequences, such as the separation of families into different work brigades. Research has found that part of this process was education reform in which students learned in an “uncritical and passive way, taking things at face value and not questioning the meaning”. Moreover, the consequences of bad innovations can impact future attempts at innovative change. Indeed, the traumatic and profound effects of these reforms on Cambodian society can still be felt today, and may well impact the perception of and openness to further innovation and change. In such settings innovations might fail even before their implementation, regardless of their nature.

As with the introduction of new technology, social change can be disruptive and have long-term negative effects for a society’s perspective on innovation. This in turn reduces the prospects for transformative change in the future, so carefully assessing potential losers and mitigating negative effects need to be on the agenda of any potential innovator, and that includes learning from failed innovations.

A holistic approach to innovations is needed

New ideas and policies are needed to tackle global challenges, and innovation will be key to implementing the 2030 Agenda. Successful innovations have emerged out of various contexts, paving the way for transformative change. However, there is a darker side to innovation of which both researchers and policy makers need to be aware. Understanding the negative perceptions and impacts of innovation as well as the history and context in which innovations are implemented is crucial. In this sense, the new ideas generated at the Global Festival of Ideas for Sustainable Development have to be carefully adapted to the contexts in which they will be implemented, and innovators must be aware of the potential negative impacts of the change they plan to introduce. Instead of trying to eliminate so-called barriers to innovation, they need to acknowledge and work to overcome the sources of resistance to change. If they fail to do so, innovations are likely to stay at the idea-level.

Photo: Aldo Cavini Benedetti (Creative Commons via Flickr).


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.